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Libel Statute of Limitations for Blog Posts Starts When They're Published, Not When Plaintiff Discovers Them
All the more reason to frequently Google your own name!
From the North Dakota Supreme Court's decision Friday in Arthaud v. Fuglie (opinion by Chief Justice Jon Jensen):
Jim Arthaud appeals a district court judgment granting Jim Fuglie's motion to dismiss. Arthaud argued this Court should adopt the "discovery rule" when determining whether a litigant has timely brought a defamation claim. We hold it is unnecessary to decide whether to adopt the discovery rule for defamation claims because the Uniform Single Publication Act precludes the discovery rule from applying to statements made to the public. We affirm….
Arthaud sued Fuglie, alleging Fuglie published a defamatory statement in his internet blog titled "A Bridge to Nowhere." The blog was published in August 2018 on Fuglie's website, "The Prairie Blog." In the post Fuglie wrote:
Arthaud knows something about dealing with politicians. Here's a story from a friend of a friend of a friend. Someone was in Arthaud's office and needed something from Sen. John Hoeven. Arthaud picked up the phone, dialed up Hoeven's office in Washington, DC, got Hoeven on the phone, got what his friend needed, hung up, and said "That's what $20,000 will get you."
Arthaud brought suit on October 5, 2021, asserting he did not learn about the post until September 2021. Fuglie responded and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing Arthaud's claim was time barred under the applicable statute of limitations….
Section 28-01-18, N.D.C.C., provides that an action for libel or slander must be commenced within two years after the claim for relief has accrued. A cause of action accrues on a defamation claim when the publication of the false statement is made to a third party. Arthaud argues the discovery rule should apply to defamation claims, and therefore the running of the statute of limitations should not begin until Arthaud discovered the blog post. We find it unnecessary to determine whether the discovery rule should apply to defamation claims because the Uniform Single Publication Act, as adopted by the North Dakota legislature, precludes application of the discovery rule when the alleged defamatory statement was made to the public.
The Uniform Single Publication Act provides:
No person may have more than one claim for relief for damages for libel or slander or invasion of privacy or any other tort founded upon any single publication or exhibition or utterance, such as any one edition of a newspaper or book or magazine or any one presentation to an audience or any one broadcast over radio or television or any one exhibition of a motion picture. Recovery in any action must include all damages for any such tort suffered by the plaintiff in all jurisdictions.
A judgment in any jurisdiction for or against the plaintiff upon the substantive merits of any action for damages founded upon a single publication or exhibition or utterance as described in this section bars any other action for damages by the same plaintiff against the same defendant founded upon the same publication or exhibition or utterance.
The Uniform Single Publication Act prevents endless retriggering of the statute of limitations by requiring the defamation claim to accrue upon the first publication of the statement. The language of the act implies the discovery rule is inapplicable in cases where the alleged defamatory remark was made to the public. Other courts have reached the same conclusion, rejecting application of the discovery rule to libels published in books, magazines, and newspapers. The Supreme Court of California noted that "application of the discovery rule would undermine the protection provided by the single-publication rule."
The Uniform Single Publication Act's purpose is to prevent both multiple and stale defamation claims. These purposes would be frustrated by application of the discovery rule where the alleged defamatory remark was published through a public format, such as the internet. We hold the Uniform Single Publication Act prevents application of the discovery rule to remarks made to the public regardless of the media used for the publication of the statement….
Arthaud failed to commence the lawsuit within the two years provided for under the statute of limitations…. Arthaud's defamation claim is time barred under N.D.C.C. § 28-01-18….
Justice Douglas Bahr concurred, joined by Lisa Fair McEvers, but took a somewhat different approach:
[The Uniform Single Publication] Act applies to all publications, exhibitions, and utterances, not only when the alleged defamatory statement or communication is made to the public. The Act also does not explicitly address when a claim accrues and the statute of limitations begins to run.
Although I disagree the language of the Uniform Single Publication Act implies the discovery rule is inapplicable in cases where the alleged defamatory remark was made to the public, I agree with the majority's result because the Act is a uniform law and other courts have interpreted the Act in a similar manner as the majority. We interpret uniform laws in a uniform manner, and we may "seek guidance from decisions in other states which have interpreted similar provisions of uniform laws.". Thus, I concur with the majority's conclusion, not because of the language of the Uniform Single Publication Act, but because we should interpret the Act consistent with the manner in which other courts have interpreted it.
However, I note courts in states that adopted the Act have also held the discovery rule applies in limited circumstances, including when the alleged defamatory statement was hidden from view or inherently undiscoverable. States that have not adopted the Act also recognize this limited exception and apply the discovery rule in certain types of defamation cases…. Based on [various precedents], I would conclude the discovery rule only applies to defamation claims where the allegedly defamatory statements are secretive or inherently undiscoverable.
I agree the discovery rule does not apply in this case. I concur with the majority that the judgment should be affirmed.
Congratulations to Chris A. Edison & Katie L. Winbauer, who represent defendant.